In case you missed it, here’s a link to part 1.

Sarkhan Wasn’t That Mad

Planeswalkers first appeared in 2007, in Lorwyn. The early designs followed a fairly standard formula: a relatively weak plus ability, a more powerful minus ability, and a big ultimate. This would be the pattern for quite some time, with some slight variations, such as Elspeth, Knight-Errant‘s two plus abilities and Tezzeret the Seeker‘s -X. Despite the small changes, they all had a similar play pattern; even Jace, the Mind Sculptor with his impressive four loyalty abilities was still basically the same. It wasn’t until 2010, with the release of Rise of the Eldrazi, that we would see a major deviation to how planeswalkers could work.

Sarkhan the Mad doesn’t really look that revolutionary at first glance, but he was the first planeswalker ever printed who couldn’t increase his own loyalty. Without a plus ability, the best he can do is maintain his current loyalty with his zero ability, but even that can damage him based on the cards it reveals. Because his loyalty can only go down, Sarkhan has a limited impact on the battlefield. His controller needs to carefully choose which abilities they want to use, since he’ll gradually lose access to them. This also means that Sarkhan can activate his ultimate right away, though it does require some setup for it to be effective. Don’t underestimate him, though; Sarkhan the Mad still has a big impact on games, even if he isn’t a self-renewing source of card advantage like certain other planeswalkers.

Limiting a planeswalker’s loyalty not only makes the controller’s decisions more meaningful, but it also gives opponents a fighting chance against them. Damage dealt isn’t immediately reset by a plus ability, which opens up opportunities to chip away at a planeswalker with a smaller creature over several turns. Of course, the longer it takes to remove the planeswalker, the worse it will be, but at least there would be an end in sight; a desperate opponent might even try to weather the storm by ignoring the planeswalker altogether, but that would likely end badly for them. In contrast, there’s no “waiting it out” against a planeswalker that resets its loyalty; the permanent will never go away.

Playing against a planeswalker without a plus ability is a lot like playing against Mazemind Tome, or Sunset Pyramid; it will generate a lot of card advantage if left in play, but after a few turns the damage will be done and their controller won’t draw any more cards off of them. Cards like this are good, and control decks in particular make good use out of them, but they don’t win games by themselves. Because of this, they’re less flashy, and seem less exciting.

Since planeswalkers are marquee, chase mythic cards, their designs tend to push the envelope as much as possible, so it makes sense that they can always refuel themselves. It’s also likely why it took until War of the Spark before we saw more non-renewable planeswalkers, and why they were uncommon when we did get them. Conspiracy 2: Take the Crown first gave us Kaya, Ghost Assassin, which doesn’t technically have a plus ability either, but it’s important to point out that she can blink herself, effectively giving her a way to reset her own loyalty.

There’s a Reason They’re Called Permanents

It can be argued that creatures can be just as obnoxious as planeswalkers, but there so many more ways to answer a creature. Not only are there more removal spells available, but the very nature of the combat phase makes creature threats easier to answer; a 2/1 creature can win a game all by itself, but it’s stopped in its tracks by something as mundane as a 1/3 blocker. Larger attackers can be removed by multiple smaller creatures working together, or can be taken down by a plucky token and a combat trick.

While similar tactics can be used against planeswalkers, it’s much harder to pull off without losing too much in the process. Of course, when a creature is difficult to destroy and also generates repeated card advantage it can just as much of a problem as a planeswalker, but most creatures don’t fall into that category. The default for a planeswalker is for it to be unbeatable.

Passively Good Enough

It’s worth talking briefly about the passive abilities of the War of the Spark planeswalkers. The introduction of these static effects put planeswalkers more in line with artifacts and enchantments than ever before, but as mentioned before, destroying a planeswalker doesn’t technically require dedicated removal, since it can be attacked. A player can theoretically maneuver the board state in such a way as to destroy a planeswalker through combat damage, though that’s much easier said than done. In practice, some of these passive abilities can be near-impossible to get off the battlefield.

War of the Spark proved just how powerful a permanent can be when it has both a static ability and a manaless activated ability. If the likes of Narset, Nissa and Teferi didn’t have loyalty abilities, their static effects would still be enough to warrant playing them; Vernal Bloom is basically just an enchantment version of Nissa‘s ability, and it’s still really good. These cards’ loyalty abilities also provide plenty of value without needing to spend extra mana, so by putting it all together on one card, it can easily end up being too much value for its mana cost.

Even if each ability seems fairly weak on its own, it always results in something more than the sum of its parts. This problem isn’t exclusive to War of the Spark‘s planeswalkers, mind you. Recent sets favour giving players their cake and letting them eat it too, most notably with Throne of Eldraine‘s adventure mechanic. Giving extra effects to a card type like planeswalker, that’s already prone to overwhelming card advantage, needs to be handled with care. If it isn’t, we end up with format-warping monsters like Teferi, Time Raveler.

On the bright side, the uncommon planeswalkers from War of the Spark can’t increase their own loyalty, making each of them a finite threat. That said, the fact that they’re as good as they are without plus abilities just goes to show how unnecessarily powerful most planeswalkers are. At least when you deal a point of damage to Narset, Parter of Veils you’re that much closer to getting it off the battlefield; the same can’t be said for a card like Teferi, Time Raveler, who just recovers the lost loyalty on his next turn.

Gaining Loyalty is an End, not a Means

In practice, players will often “waste” a turn by using a planeswalker’s plus ability when it doesn’t do anything, just to make the permanent harder to destroy. Often, when a player uses Jace, the Mind Sculptor‘s +2 “fateseal” ability, it’s not because they’re trying to filter their draws, but it’s to keep Jace safe from Lightning Bolt, or to get closer to using his ultimate. This helps illustrate that increasing a planeswalker’s loyalty is valuable in and of itself; if Jace’s +2 literally had no text, there would still be times when it would be the correct ability to use.

We’ve seen a few planeswalkers that play around with the idea of gaining loyalty for it’s own sake, like Gideon, Champion of Justice and Chandra, Acolyte of Flame. Generally speaking, these cards feel like good examples of “fair” plus abilities, since they don’t do anything else. They allow the planeswalkers to start powering up like a Lux Cannon, and let them recover when attacked, but by continually harassing the planeswalker, and opponent can effectively “stun lock” or detain it, preventing it from doing anything relevant. If the planeswalker is going to do anything to actually affect the game, it will need to spend its loyalty to do so. Or, at the very least, they won’t generate more loyalty, allowing the opponent to weaken them even further.

The plus ability on Gideon, Champion of Justice is an especially interesting case, since its strength is dependent on the current board state. When horribly outnumbered, Gideon can fire off his game-ending ultimate almost right away, but the more creatures there are, the harder it will be for Gideon’s controller to keep him on the battlefield. It creates an interesting little mini-game, where the opponent needs to decide how many creatures they need to destroy Gideon, while not playing out so many that he’ll reach his ultimate too soon.

Loyalty Should Be Earned

It would be nice to see more conditional plus abilities like Gideon‘s. Treating them more like quests would not only make them more interesting, but would also be far more thematic: the planeswalker will be more willing to stick around and help you if you’re able to meet their terms and conditions. This could take the form of a favour or payment, such as a mana cost or blood sacrifice, or they might require a display of dominance. The planeswalker might only gain loyalty when you cast a certain number of spells in one turn, or if you control a large enough creature to impress them.

These conditions would be reminiscent of various +1/+1 counter creatures, or the repeatable energy generators from Kaladesh. Like many Magic cards, if you do something specific, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Granted, having loyalty tied to a triggered ability runs the risk of creating very explosive turns, so they might be limited to triggering once per turn, or they may be a conditional part of the card’s activated ability instead. There are plenty of options, and mechanical inspiration can be drawn from all sorts of sources. The Gods of Amonkhet, for instance, have unique requirements before you can attack or block with them, and similar conditions could be applied to a planeswalker “0” ability; if the condition is met it adds loyalty, but otherwise it won’t. The technology is already part of the game, it just hasn’t really been applied to planeswalkers.

That said, Nissa of Shadowed Boughs and Garruk, Cursed Huntsman are recent examples of conditional loyalty in practice. Nissa gains counters from landfall triggers, while Garruk relies on his Wolf tokens to die before he can get stronger. These cards aren’t perfect, mind you; Nissa didn’t need a plus ability in addition to her landfall trigger, and Garruk produces so many tokens that you can’t really play around them. Still, these are a good start, and if planeswalkers look like this moving forward it will be a marked improvement.

This isn’t just a mechanical matter, either. When a planeswalker gains loyalty in an unconventional way, it always tells a more compelling story than a generic plus ability: Nissa is emboldened by the lands around her. Garruk is filled with grim determination when his an animal companions fall in battle. Kaya slips back into the shadows when things get dicey. And Gideon rises to the challenge when the odds are stacked against him. These abilities reflect the planeswalker’s personality through their mechanics, and make each of them feel unique.

On the other side of this coin is Vraska, Golgari Queen. While she has a traditional plus ability, it doesn’t do anything unless you pay her tribute, that is to say, unless you sacrifice a permanent. This is both thematic, and balanced; there’s a real cost whenever you ask Vraska for help. Dealing with her is a tricky negotiation; she’s willing to let you draw a card and gain some life, but she won’t just give it to you for free. If you’re able to build around it, sacrificing a permanent with her can actually be beneficial, but that’s true of any drawback; in the right deck any downside can become a strength.

Regardless, this presents another interesting approach to planeswalker loyalty. Rather than having the player work to earn their loyalty, the planeswalker might make you work to generate value. Either approach can work, depending on the personality of the planeswalker, and they both result in balanced, flavourful cards. What’s more, conditional loyalty doesn’t have to have a big impact on the power level of a planeswalker. These are still good cards, even if they’re not on the same level as the likes of Liliana of the Veil, Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Oko, Thief of Crowns. And honestly, that’s for the best.

What Now?

The planeswalker problem comes down to one basic principle: gaining loyalty isn’t a cost, it’s a benefit unto itself. Adding free counters as a part of some other ability makes fighting against the planeswalker all but impossible, and what’s more, it’s unnecessary for making a powerful card. Planeswalkers can be good and exciting even when they have no way to regain loyalty, and by interrupting their continuous value generation, it opens up opportunities for counter-play. This makes games more tense and interesting for both players, as they try to get an edge over each other.

Despite my criticisms, I actually have high hopes for the future of planeswalker design. Several new cards suggest the trend is moving away from the pure card advantage engines of the past, toward more interesting, thematic build-around cards. That’s not to say that I expect the classic “plus, minus, ultimate” planeswalker template to go away entirely; players like powerful cards, and that formula always delivers. Still, I can’t help but feel that Magic as a whole will be better if that sort of planeswalker design becomes the exception, not the rule.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.